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Tennis : Billie Jean, at 41, Isn't Afraid to Take On Gerulaitis and Austin

April 07, 1985|MIKE PENNER

At age 41, Billie Jean King has drifted into semi-retirement, her competitive tennis now limited to an occasional exhibition. But she still is as quick with an opinion as she once was at rushing the net. Some samples:

--Women's tennis is in trouble, with the only two players that really matter--Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert Lloyd--nearing the end of their careers and no heirs on the horizon.

--Navratilova could beat the world's No. 100-ranked men's player, no matter what Vitas Gerulaitis says.

--Gerulaitis and Bobby Riggs will be no match for Navratilova and Pam Shriver in their much-hyped doubles duel this August.

--Fear is preventing Tracy Austin's return to the professional tennis circuit.

--Jimmy Connors' recent slump is a result of racket problems that became psychological problems.

King also believes that her Team Tennis league is a wonderful idea and destined to become the best thing to hit the sport since sliced volleys. But impartial views are what we want here, and King is more than willing to serve those up.

"I hope there's another Chris or Martina out there, but I don't see anyone who's stunning to me," she said. "We've gone through a real long drought. We haven't had a drought like this since the '50s.

"It seems to work in 10-year cycles. (Maria) Bueno and (Althea) Gibson dominated for 10 years. Then, it was Margaret (Court) and me for 10 years. And it's been Martina and Chris for 10 years.

"We're due now, but I don't see anyone out there with the talent and the gate appeal. Right now, Martina and Chris are the gate appeal in women's tennis."

One player who might have been able to make a difference, Austin, has been beset by injuries since she turned 20. King says she'd like to see Austin make another comeback but openly questions her dedication and determination.

"I think she owes it to the game and to herself," King said, "but she's darn afraid to get back on the court. She's just afraid to lose . . . or maybe she's afraid to win.

"I adore Tracy. It's OK for her to go out there and lose for a year while she gets it together. I had to take my knocks after I came back from knee surgery and it's so scary, a horrible feeling.

"But it's very important for one's self to give it another try. Tracy's afraid she's not ready, but when is she ever going to be ready? Getting out there would be a huge breakthrough for her, just as long as she tries her best."

Unless that happens, women's tennis is left with only Navratilova and Lloyd to carry the torch. King hopes Navratilova can hang on for another four or five years, and maybe get the chance to take on a men's player along the way.

"I thought Vitas' comments at the U.S. Open about Martina playing the No. 100 men's player were pretty funny," King said. "I think Martina would beat the No. 100 player. It would depend on which style of player she played--the rankings change every two weeks--and it would depend on the court.

"But if the conditions were right, I think Martina could win."

Navratilova has so far rejected all offers to play a man in singles, but has agreed to team with doubles partner Shriver to stage a "battle of the sexes" exhibition against Gerulaitis and Riggs. King, who inspired such foolishness with her 1973 mixed-singles victory over Riggs, believes the doubles match is a vitally needed boost for women's tennis.

"It will create some interest, and the women will win," King said. "I think most people feel that way.

"Bobby is probably a lot worse than he was when he played me. Then, he was marginal. Now, he's worse. Vitas will need to end the points fast, but he doesn't have enough punch. Watch him play, and he usually needs three volleys to win the point.

"I hope the women win--kill 'em. Then, I can tease Vitas for the rest of his life."

King sees more than meets the eye in the current Jimmy Connors situation.

"Jimmy's having racket problems," she said, "and that's affecting him psychologically. I think he plays great with the racket, but Jimmy has to believe that. Jimmy is so intense that he has to have complete confidence in the racket. When he starts doubting his shot production, he has trouble."

King says she has discussed the racket with Connors.

"I told him the problem is the middle of the racket," King said. "It's not as long in the shaft as the T-2000 (Connors' old racket). Jimmy said, 'Hey, you know, that's exactly right.' "

Tennis Notes

King's Team Tennis league will have these lineups during the 1985 season: BOSTON--Ann Kiyomura-Hayashi, Andrea Leand, Mike Leach, Robert Van't Hof; CHICAGO--Rosie Casals, Terry Holladay, Nduka Odizor, Ben Testerman; LOS ANGELES--Larry Stefanki, Pam Teeguarden, Vince Van Patten, Anne White; MIAMI BEACH--Ann Henricksson, Steve Meister, Gabriela Sabatini, Van Winitsky; OAKLAND--Marty Davis, Chris Dunk, Barbara Jordan, Sharon Walsh; ST. LOUIS--Sandy Collins, John Mattke, Terry Moor, Candy Reynolds; SAN ANTONIO--Tony Giammalva, Hank Pfister, Kim Shaefer, Anne Smith; SAN DIEGO--Todd Nelson, Mary Lou Piatek, Butch Walts, Robin White. . . .Jimmy Connors heads the field of players who have committed to the Alan King/Caesars Palace tennis tournament April 29 through May 5 in Las Vegas. Twelve of the world's top 20 players are entered in the event, including Pat Cash, Yannick Noah, Aaron Krickstein, Stefan Edberg and Eliot Teltscher.

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